THE DISTRICT government faces a terrible shortage of affordable housing. Some 13,000 names are on the city's waiting list for public housing. Another 6,500 names are on a waiting list for TAP -- the city's Tenant Assistance Program. TAP uses public money to supplement the rent of low-income tenants, but many landlords have been unwilling to participate in the plan. Now, there is a new wrinkle to it.

There are thousands of vacant and abandoned apartment properties throughout the city. Many have large liens against them for unpaid taxes and utility costs. When such properties are purchased, the buyer assumes the debt on the building. To get those apartments back on the market, the District government will now lift those liens if the buyer agrees to rent some of the units to low-income people.

The 58-unit apartment building at 1436 Meridian Place in Northwest Washington is an example. Developers Bob and Marilyn DeLuca of Loudoun County bought the structure for $625,000 from trustees who had taken over the building in a foreclosure. City officials offered to waive all but $100,000 of the $383,000 in liens from a previous owner if the DeLucas would rent 15 percent of the units to low-income people. The city sweetened the pot by adding rent supplements through the TAP program -- guaranteeing that the DeLucas would receive market-rate rents on units set aside for low-income tenants. Without the waiver of the liens, the DeLucas say they would not have accepted TAP tenants.

Was a better deal possible? Waiving liens in the six-figure category ought to be a sufficient incentive for renting to low-income tenants without rent supplements. One can also argue that it would be more proper for the city to act through nonprofit organizations involved in rehabilitating homes and apartments for the disadvantaged. But the DeLucas eventually agreed to set aside 24 apartments -- more than the original 15 percent -- and so at a cost of roughly $11,800 per apartment, city officials have found more housing for the poor. Considering the fact that the District government pays $2,700 per family per month to keep hundreds of homeless families in hotels, perhaps these generous agreements with landlords are a good deal for the city as well.